Within the past decade, there has been a food revolution occurring within Maine. An increasing number of communities, organizations, and individuals have turned their attention to the importance of local food and are working to strengthen and support local food systems through collaborative efforts and a variety of initiatives.
A food system is the path by which food gets from the ocean or field to the consumer, and then waste resources are returned to the soil. Food systems are made up of producers, processors, distributors, waste managers, and supporters such as educators, transporters, and municipal government officials. Food systems are also shaped internally by natural resource availability as well as local attitudes and demands; external factors shaping them include local and federal policy.
Mentioned in this article are a handful of the many collaborative initiatives happening in Maine's food system as well as a few of the key challenges we face in reaching a goal of both increasing and broadening access to, and consumption of, local food.
Maine agriculture is growing. According to the 2012 US Census, between 2007 and 2012, the number of farmers in Maine under the age of 34 grew by almost 40%, far exceeding the 1.5% increase seen for the nation. The number of farms and the amount of land utilized in farming also increased during that time, while these numbers decreased for every state outside of New England. Maine is becoming more invested in local agriculture and is taking steps to return to a time when Maine was the “bread basket of the Northeast” and the majority of food consumed in Maine was produced in Maine.
Community Food Councils
Community food councils are one example of the local food systems movement in Maine, and the number of these councils in the state is increasing every year. Food councils tend to be networks comprised of a diverse group of stakeholders involved in aspects of the food system, including food security organizations, food producers, educators, healthcare workers, food processors, economic development groups, and other community members. They apply a systems approach to supporting and strengthening food production and access within a town or region. In their early stages, food councils around Maine have conducted community food scans or assessments, supported efforts to develop farm to school programs, raised awareness about food insecurity, and generally aimed to support programs that address needs within their local food systems and increase connectivity within their local food systems.
In an effort to coordinate initiatives happening locally, community food councils across Maine have joined together as the Maine Network of Community Food Councils (MNCFC). This network aims to improve local food system work through coordination, collaboration, and resource sharing. MNCFC created the Maine Food Atlas which helps map local food systems by providing food producers, distributors, and food security organizations with a platform on which to describe their organization and show its spatial relationship to other members of the local and statewide food system.
Maine Food Strategy
Working at the statewide level, and in coordination with MNCFC, the Maine Food Strategy is an initiative focused on creating a strong network of diverse stakeholders contributing to Maine’s food system. Input collected from stakeholders involved in the Maine Food Strategy network has led to the development of four goals for Maine’s food system – creating economic development opportunities and building lasting livelihoods, providing healthy food for all Maine people, supporting a healthy Maine environment, and contributing to the vibrant communities that recognize the importance of food production in Maine. The Maine Food Strategy encourages interested stakeholders to become a part of the conversation and the network.
Increasing Access to Local Food
Local foods are becoming more accessible to Maine residents due to a steady increase in the number of farmers’ markets. In 2004, Maine had only 50 farmers’ markets, but by 2015 that number had risen to nearly 150 markets. The number of farmers’ markets accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, the program formerly known as food stamps, is also steadily rising as more focus is placed on increasing access to local foods for all of Maine’s residents. Many farmers’ markets are offering incentives to help SNAP beneficiaries stretch their benefits and buy more food. Many markets are involved in Maine Harvest Bucks, a program in which incentives, usually “bonus dollars” or discounts, are provided to SNAP beneficiaries for the purchase of fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. This is being coordinated by the Maine Local Food Access Network.
SNAP acceptance at farmers’ markets, farm stands, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) has importance for Maine beyond its impact on expanded food access. This acceptance also strengthens the local economy. Money spent at big-box stores tends to leave the state, but each federal dollar spent at local small businesses, such as farmers’ markets, contributes between $1.70 and $4.00 to the local economy.
Increasing the financial accessibility of local foods is not always sufficient for changing purchasing habits, and education must also be a priority in order to increase local food consumption. If an individual does not know what celeriac is or how to cook it, chances are they will not buy it. Maine SNAP-Ed, funded by the USDA and administered by the University of New England in collaboration with the Healthy Maine Partnerships, is an education initiative that has become more prominent in the past five years. The goal of SNAP-Ed is to improve the likelihood that a SNAP beneficiary will have the knowledge to make healthy food choices on a limited budget. SNAP-Ed offers a variety of nutrition curricula designed for all age groups, and recently, a new guide was developed to help SNAP educators provide their programs at farmers’ markets and better incorporate local foods into their lessons.
Farm to Institution
Farm to institution efforts are another area in which a revolution is underway. This past year, Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative competitively bid for the University of Maine System’s Food Service Management contract against several global food service providers. During the bidding process Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative challenged their competitors to adopt their goal of 20% local food usage in the first year. Ultimately, the University of Maine system selected Sodexo, an international food service provider, for the contract. While this news is disappointing to those who championed Maine Farm & Sea Cooperative’s effort, at least Sodexo adopted the 20% local food goal for the first year of its contract. Sodexo holds other food service contracts around the state, and their adoption of the 20% local food goal for their contract with the UMaine System has given some groups hope that perhaps Sodexo will eventually incorporate this same goal into all of their contracts.
Through Maine’s Farm to School network, Maine schools can access resources identifying ways to incorporate lessons about agriculture and local food systems such as the Maine Agriculture in the Classroom into existing curriculum. “The Maine Farm to School Network is working to link schools to local farms so they can incorporate more fresh, Maine grown food into school meals to improve child health, teach food origins, and boost the local economy,” says Assistant Director of Healthy Communities for the Capital Area and Maine Farm to School Network Coordinator Renee Page. “Municipal officials can support these efforts by looking at ways to increase access to local foods when developing municipal Comprehensive Plans, asking school nutrition directors what support they need to increase the amount of local food they buy, and helping growers overcome barriers to selling to schools.” The network can also help to develop policies aimed at adding more local foods to a school's meal service program.
Challenges and Opportunities
While there are considerable, collaborative efforts focused on local food systems in Maine, we still have a long road ahead to increase Maine’s local food production and consumption. In 2006, only 20% of Maine’s food needs were met by our state’s food production. It is not likely that that number has increased significantly, and there are challenges to gathering data on exactly where that number stands today. Some of the challenges we are still contending with include lack of processing, ineffective distribution channels, loss of infrastructure in our institutions to handle fresh food, and too many Mainers struggling to get enough food of any kind.
Processing facilities for both meat and produce in most of the state are insufficient and remain an issue for food producers, as well as consumers. Poor roads, lack of other transportation options, and widely dispersed producers make distributing local food challenging and cost ineffective. Many schools, hospitals, colleges, and prisons long ago minimized their kitchen infrastructure so that meals came out of a can. This saved money on food sourcing and saved time, but today, those food service directors who wish to process local food do not have the kitchen tools or staff experience to do so. In addition, Maine continues to have a high rate of food insecurity, ranking third in the nation and first in New England, while simultaneously experiencing cuts to SNAP benefits. Food insecurity is defined as lacking access to enough food to provide necessary nutrition. More work needs to be done to support food security organizations such as food banks and pantries, organizations that tend to see increased numbers of clients served when SNAP benefits are reduced.
Opportunities for Planners to Support Local Food Efforts
As planners and consultants, there is a lot that can be done to assist your community or region in supporting local food. Town Comprehensive Plans and ordinances should take into consideration the unique needs of farms, working waterfronts, as well as direct-to-consumer retail opportunities. Trying to keep land open and affordable for producers, having strong, clear ordinances that prevent conflicts between producers and their neighbors such as local ordinances that strengthen state right-to-farm rules, and allowing for farm stands and farmers’ markets, and signs for CSAs, are all important ways to do this. There are, of course, many others ways to support local food efforts. The APA’s A Planners Guide to Community and Regional Food Planning, Maine Farmland Trust’s Cultivating Maine’s Agricultural Future, and the Maine Policy Review, Special Edition: Food are all excellent resources for planners interested in this topic. Maine has the potential to turn the tables and become a local food systems leader in this nation, but it will require an effort from all of Maine’s residents at every level, from those who produce it to those who consume it.
--Colleen Fuller, Prevention Specialist at Access Health, a local Healthy Maine Partnership, and member of the Merrymeeting Food Council
Want to learn more about Maine's food initiatives? Read our past Front Page article on local food hubs.
Image credit: Corey Templeton via Flickr Creative Commons https://flic.kr/p/6sdqx2